School was out, but on an afternoon in rural Benin, 11-year-old Ambroise rushed to a tree-shaded parking lot, his day’s learning not yet done.
Parked beneath the cola trees was a lorry trailer loaded with computers — the kind of technology that few students in the West African country had ever seen, much less touched.
Designed by BloLab, a non-profit group based in Benin’s largest city Cotonou, the 13-metre (43-foot) trailer is powered by 12 solar panels and equipped with enough laptops to give rural students a chance to familiarise themselves with computers, which most families cannot afford.
“When the teacher told us that we’d start having computer class again, I quickly finished my work because I was so happy,” said Ambroise, from eastern Benin’s Avrankou district.
In his class of 48, only four pupils had even touched a computer before. Ambroise had used one at a photocopy shop, while the other three had a sibling who owned one.
In Benin, the digital divide is not just a concept but a reality, said BloLab founder Medard Agbayazon.
“In the towns, many people have technology, there are cybercafes. But in villages it is rare to find a computer or a smartphone,” he told AFP.
Benin’s internet penetration rate is just 42.2 percent, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic and Postal Communication said in a report last year.
Among these, almost everyone (96 percent) used a mobile phone for accessing the web.
These are the conditions which spawned the idea for a mobile classroom furnished with desks as well as fans to ward off the tropical heat.
BloLab pays to rent a cab to two the trailer, which was donated by Swiss-based charity African Puzzle.
The classroom, which has visited two communities since last August, stays in one place for a month at a time, providing five two-hour computer skills classes per week, free of charge.
It is a drop in the ocean for Avrankou, which has a population of 128,000 scattered around 59 villages served by 88 primary schools.
“The idea isn’t to make computer scientists, but just to make children want to use digital technology. It’s a tool that can solve real problems in everyday life,” Agbayazon said.
As one group of pupils practises using a word processor on the trailer’s laptops, another works in a corner of the town hall, learning to build computers in jerrycans with recycled components from obsolete machines or donated by businesses and charities in Cotonou.
The students are already familiar with terms like “motherboard”, “hard drive”, and “power supply” from a previous lesson.
One of two trainers, Raoul Letchede, shows the kids the components they will use to assemble a makeshift computer in a 25-litre (6.6-gallon) yellow plastic container.
These home-fashioned machines must be hooked up to a computer screen to work.
“This lesson familiarises them with the inside of a computer, demystifies how it works, and shows them that they can make their own even without much money,” Letchede said.
One rule of the mobile classroom is that all the software used must be free to the public.
“We have to promote this practice because we don’t have the money here to buy the licences,” said Agbayazon. “We don’t want to encourage children to hack.”
The approach impressed local official Apollinaire Oussou Lio on a recent visit to the class.
“This is an opportunity to no longer be a slave to software from the big multinationals,” Lio said, adding he would himself like to be more computer savvy.
“I’d also like to be trained,” he said, citing a wish to learn to use geo-location to better preserve the surrounding forests.
Teacher Guillaume Gnonlonfoun is happy for his students. The school where he works has no computer, and he himself first used one at university.
Many of Gnonlonfoun’s colleagues have never used a PC, and the BloLab class is open to them as well.
“These days, nothing can be done without digital technology,” he told AFP.
“So that we don’t end up being the illiterates of this millennium, it is essential that we have equipment.”
But until real computers arrive in the community, pupils and teachers will have no option but to build their own.
High costs and slow speed mar Equatorial Guinea’s dreams for internet access
Equatorial Guinea has the most expensive internet in the world after Zimbabwe
Equatorial Guinea is awash in oil, although little of the wealth has trickled down to the poor.
Yet one of the most glaring inequalities here is access to the internet.
Other parts of the world are pushing ahead with plans for fast, free — or at least low-cost — universal online access. Equatorial Guinea, a country on the coast of central-western Africa, seems shy of this aspiration.
With rare exceptions, sluggish speeds and stratospheric bills are the daily lot of people who want to search for information on the web, use social media, email, messaging and the myriad of other internet activities that are routine elsewhere.
“The internet in Equatorial Guinea is still a big-money business, reserved for those who can afford it,” said Mboro Mba, 35, seated on the ground behind a hotel as he tried to hook into a free Wi-Fi service with his smartphone.
Equatorial Guinea has the most expensive internet in the world after Zimbabwe, according to a list published this year by Ecobank, a pan-African bank.
One gigabyte of mobile data — roughly equivalent to watching an hour of television on Netflix — costs an eye-watering $35.
By comparison, the average monthly pay of a manual worker or restaurant waiter in Equatorial Guinea is between 100,000-150,000 CFA francs ($170-260).
“For 2,000 CFA francs, I can’t even download an 80-second video,” a local journalist told colleagues from central Africa who had come to Malabo to cover a regional meeting and found themselves caught in internet problems.
“You really have to be patient to work with the internet in this country,” said a visitor from the Republic of Congo, unsuccessfully trying to send files to his editor.
The barriers to internet access here are so high that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, estimates that just a quarter — 26 per cent — of Equatorial Guineans go online.
The authorities have set up a “free, public internet network” along the Paseo Maritimo, a seafront six kilometres (3.5 miles) long in Malabo that is also used for sporting activities and leisurely strolls.
“I come here almost every evening to talk on WhatsApp to my mother who is in Spain,” says Filomena, 32, a clothes vendor.
“I don’t have the money to have an internet connection, so I come here often with my friends to use the Wi-Fi,” schoolboy Jorge Obiang says, leaning against a tree with several young companions, all glued to their screens.
Equatorial Guinea is nominally one of the richest states in Africa thanks to oil income.
By next month, its President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, will have ruled with an iron fist for 40 years — the longest tenure of any African leader alive today.
He has long been criticised for corruption within the regime and lack of openness to the rest of the world.
The slow service is especially paradoxical since “the country is situated in the Gulf of Guinea and so has access to a number of seabed cables”, said Julie Owono of Internet Sans Frontieres (Internet Without Borders), an NGO.
Equatorial Guinea — consisting of an island where Malabo lies and a forested territory on the African mainland that hosts trading capital Bata — is connected to three undersea fibre optic cables supplying internet service.
In neighbouring Gabon, internet access is five times less expensive on the scale drawn up by Ecobank.
No competition –
The sky-high price of the internet “is explained by the very strong presence of the state (telecom) company on the market and lack of competition,” Owono said.
“Everything here is centralised, political decisions depend on one person, or a family, and it is difficult to establish a competitive market.”
The state telecoms agency GITGE, which sets tariffs, declined to respond to reporter’s questions.
Another disincentive for competition is internet blackouts ordered by those in power, she said.
In November 2017, on the eve of parliamentary elections, access to WhatsApp was blocked and social media became unavailable for five months.
“We’re living in the information era — the government is applying an enormous brake,” said Owono.
How technology is helping Kenya win the war against poaching
Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary
Every morning, at the far perimeter of the wildlife reserve capped by Mount Kenya, a khaki-clad ranger meticulously sweeps the earth of animal footprints, covering their tracks from any poachers. It’s an antiquated approach to outsmarting would-be hunters, but this ranger is not alone. High on a mast nearby, a new camera scans around the clock for intrusions, relaying real-time images to armed guards at park headquarters.
It is among the latest technology deployed to combat poaching at Ol Pejeta, a private conservancy on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau that shelters the only two northern white rhinos left on earth, among other endangered giants.
A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.
But it’s just the tip of the spear. Last month, Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary dedicated to bringing conservation management into the information age.
Inside a retrofitted shipping container, computer engineers are testing the next generation of animal tracking chips and developing remote sensors that could one day monitor everything from ranger health to river levels. “We are very much in our infancy when it comes to this kind of stuff. It is pretty cutting-edge from a conservation perspective,” Richard Vigne, the chief executive of Ol Pejeta, said.
Among other projects, researchers are working towards a chip small enough to fit in a rhino horn, but capable of the live transmission of the animals’ exact location and core vitals. “No one else in the conservation space in Kenya is testing this… For me, that was very exciting,” said Damian Otieno, a Kenyan IT engineer who left an office job for a career in conservation tech, and now leads the Ol Pejeta initiative.
Tech advocates say advances in data collection and smart applications on game reserves could prove revolutionary and upend decades-old approaches to conservation across the world.
‘Bank without doors’
Until this year at Ol Pejeta, the only way to know if a poacher was lurking near a wildlife corridor was to spot him yourself or trawl through pictures captured by a motion-triggered camera trap. “If I had a bugbear about the world of conservation, it’s that it tends to be fairly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technologies… that has to change,” said Vigne.
Now, three cameras with artificial intelligence capable of telling man from beast send alerts in real time if disturbances are detected. This is critical for the 250 elite rangers tasked with safeguarding 360 square kilometres (90,000 acres) of bushland grazed by more than 150 rhinos.
The last successful poaching at Ol Pejeta was in October 2017, when a northern black rhino was slaughtered. But the threat remains. Last year, three rhinos were found dead with their horns missing in Meru National Park, on the other side of Mount Kenya.
Rhino horn is highly valued in parts of Asia for its believed medicinal qualities and still fetches higher prices than gold, said Samuel Mutisya, head of conservation at Ol Pejeta. “In principle, we are a bank without doors,” he said.
Most intel on game reserves is gathered on foot by rangers in difficult and dangerous terrain, and the walkie-talkie reigns supreme. Poor network coverage and the huge cost of infrastructure has hamstrung the rollout of even basic telecommunication services in some remote habitats.
‘Ten steps ahead’
Ol Pejeta, however, is connected to a stable network that requires little power to cover the entire park. Data on everything from security breaches to fence damage, lion sightings and ranger locations are fed into a digital dashboard, accessible at a finger’s touch.
A pair of flashing handcuffs on the screen indicates an arrest. A “poacher contact” alert would trigger the immediate deployment of armed rangers. Other innovations have been tested elsewhere in Africa to combat wildlife crime, but cost remains a major hurdle to widespread uptake.
Drones, thermal-imaging cameras and virtual-radar fences were among technologies trialled to mixed success in several African nations by WWF through a Google-backed programme that ended in 2017.
FLIR Systems, which manufactures night-vision cameras, said in January its technology, already deployed in the Masai Mara, would be expanded to 10 Kenyan parks and game reserves.
Vigne said the challenge for Ol Pejeta’s researchers would be developing solutions that can be replicated cost-effectively, at scale. “It’s all very well having one or two parks in Africa with lots of techs, but if that is really costly to the point that nobody else can do it, then it’s a waste of time,” he said.
Prototypes of small, inexpensive chips with years-long battery life are already being tested to track the conservancy’s 6000-strong herd of Boran cattle. Soon, Ol Pejeta hopes to adapt this to rhino tracking, providing intelligence about where and when to deploy rangers and trimming their security bill. “We want to stay one step ahead of the poachers. Ten steps ahead, even better,” said Otieno.
The brain behind West Africa’s premier smart card manufacturers
SecureID manufactures all the varieties of smart cards with the inclusion of highly complex polycarbonate cards
Introducing SecureID Nigeria Ltd, a leading smart card technology and digital security company. It possesses a world-class facility earning it plaudits not just for its immense facilities, but for being the only smart card production plant in all of West Africa. One of the six in Africa.
This feat was achieved by Kofo Akinkugbe, who doubles up as Founder and CEO. Her story is one of success owing to her record as an exceptional entrepreneur and businesswoman. Her background as a Mathematics Major whilst also earning an MBA from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland contributed to her successes.
SecureID manufactures all the varieties of smart cards with the inclusion of highly complex polycarbonate cards. According to its website homepage, the company takes the lead as Africa’s industry leader in smart card manufacturing, fulfilment and digital solutions while also offering superior end-to-end identity management and digital security solutions.
At the moment, SecureID has acquired certification from VISA, Verve, and MasterCard. The company operates a world-class production plant while also adhering to the best practices and setting international standards.
Kofo Akinkugbe is encouraging business owners to build capacity that will sustain creativity. Citing her company as an example, she opined that Secure ID succeeded by thinking ahead and developing a product that was not yet in demand at the time it was being developed.
She further suggests that employers and business owners focus on employee creativity while monitoring the returns on investment.
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